Friday, December 29, 2006

too much exercise? over-reaching and over-training

these people have no idea:

basically, the gist of the article is that too much exercise results in injuries and that researchers argue because of this exercise should be limited to 12 hours per week.

12 hours per week.

that's all?!?!

they sure haven't been talking to any triathletes i know. or, for that matter, any athletes in general i know.

i'd be ecstatic if i could get my coach to let me go with 12 hours per week.

i don't know anybody in sports who's working with a limit of 12 hours per week. in fact, i'd guarantee that 12 hours is a minimum, and that if they went under 12 they'd be suffering major losses in conditioning and health.

this article is one of those health & fitness pieces that drives me nuts, and which i find in equal parts humorous, frustrating, and disappointing.

it's humorous because a few years ago i probably would have accepted it as gospel, and with everybody else who read the article i would have run off and adjusted my workout routine to match it without questioning its reasoning or premise. more than this, i would have cited it as authoritative fact to every random stranger, friend, or relative within earshot. after all, like everybody else, i look at it as a product of a reputable and well-known news source (CNN), and so view it as having legitimacy (or at least more legitimacy than some other sources you might find on the internet).

it's frustrating, because the article greatly over-simplifies a very complex issue, and because of the over-simplification ends up issuing a broad solution that is excessively general. the article introduces an apparent trend of increasing injuries from people who are engaged in exercise, and then refers to sources that indicate most of the injuries occurring with people who engage in exercise above a certain time period (12 hours), and that there's diminishing fitness returns beyond 12 hours per week because of such injuries. based on this apparently simple connection, it construes the basic logical conclusion that (voila!) the injuries will be reduced if people kept to a general limit of exercise under 12 hours.

while logical, it's an over-simplified distortion. just because there's a correlation between the level of exercise and the number of injuries does not mean there's a direct relationship (i.e., it does not mean that exercise causes injuries). this is because there may be other conceivable variables at play in determining the relationship between extended exercise and injuries. what about subjects' age? background in physical activity? understanding of exercise and training? current level of health? history of health and injuries? nature of exercise? these are all potentially influential variables that are readily apparent on a superficial introductory survey of the article and exercise science in general. they're what researchers would label as alternative causal factors--alternative causes of the results in question (injuries).

as a result, the edict of a 12-hour weekly limit on exercise is excessively general. while it may certainly address the problem of injury, it may not really address the true cause of the problem, such as improper training methods, mistakes in exercise, pre-exisiting health problems, endemic vulnerability to injury, etc. more than this, it denies the possibility that more specific and appropriate solutions to injury exist that allow people to adjust the benefit incurred vs. time exercising balance enough to justify exceeding the 12-hour time limit. in other words, that with solutions targeting the actual problems of injury, it eliminates the diminishing returns over the 12-hour ceiling produced by those injuries, and hence makes it easier to justify pursuit of added fitness gains found by training more.

the article is also disappointing, because it is actually partially right. too much exercise in too little time with too little preparation and too little recovery will definitely result in injury. but this doesn't mean that people should stop exercising, or that they should ever limit themselves. what the article should have done is to recommend that people get better educated about how to take on more exercise over a proper period of time using proper preparation with proper recovery.

every seriously dedicated athlete i know follows a very clear, specific, and organized training schedule that sets workouts with definitive purposes on a plan that recognizes each athlete's background, goals, current level of fitness, and current need for building conditioning or skills or taking time for rest. almost every one of those plans regularly rises to more than 12 hours per week in a way that avoids injury. and every athlete--and every sport--recognizes that there are worthwhile (and in some ways necessary) fitness gains to be found in training more than 12 hours per week. in Ironman, for example, triathletes regularly put in 20-24 hour training weeks just to improve their chances of finishing the 140.6 mile distance of the race (professionals who actually compete in Ironmans for time actually put in more).

there are fitness gains worth having that can be obtained beyond the 12-hour per week barrier, and that can be had without injury. rather than issuing an over-generalized 12-hour limit, the article should have focused on 2 more useful concepts related to injury risk that are more widely accepted within the sports medicine and exercise science community of research: over-reaching and over-training.
  • over-reaching: over-reaching is the condition where a person attempts to perform workouts that are beyond the body's current ability to accomplish them. done properly, over-reaching is part of every workout, in the sense that a person improves by engaging in activity greater than what their body is used to, pushing the body to adapt by improving its capacities. however, done improperly, over-reaching exposes the body to risk of injury, in that it will induce serious tears or ruptures in muscles, tendons, ligaments, or bone.
  • over-training: over-training is the state where a person is pushing their body so hard (either in volume or intensity) in training that they have overwhelmed their body's ability to recover. biologically, this causes a deterioration in the body at the cellular level, with mitochondria in the body's cells literally distintegrating, reducing the ability to produce energy or repair cellular decay. the result is chronic fatigue, weakness, or even systemic failure. it also leaves the body susceptible to over-reaching and concomitant risk of injury.
these are actually medically recognized and researched subjects that have become pretty big topics as athletes have continued to push the boundaries of what has been previously perceived notions of human physical limits. some useful (and more basic) references are:
what's important to observe about over-reaching and over-training is that they are not inevitable. they can be managed. they can be treated. more importantly, they can be prevented and avoided. all it takes is knowledge, sensitivity to body signals, diligence in following training guidelines, careful scheduling of workout and recovery, and proper nutrition. if dealt with properly, sports medicine has shown that risk of injury can be reduced, and that people can thereby pursue exercise to achieve greater fitness goals.

this makes the 12-hour limit posited by the CNN piece needlessly arbitrary, and in many ways a disservice to audience members who could benefit from more exercise. the danger is not from exercise done excessively; the danger is from exercise done improperly. a more nuanced approach would have provided CNN readers with a better grasp as to the factors that are involved in injury during exercise, a better explanation as how injuries arise, and a thereby better way of dealing with the risk that is more accurate and beneficial to physical fitness.

lord knows, looking around at all the bellies and rear ends jiggling on the streets, this society sure could use it.

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